On Panglossianism

Those who think that the horrors of the nineteen-thirties and forties were eclipses of the sun, rather than an eternal darkness of the earth, are invariably mocked as Panglossian. But Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire’s fatuously optimistic philosopher, is an unfairly reviled man. The Enlightenment philosophers who insisted that the world could be improved were right. Voltaire was one of them. The mistake was to think that, once improved, it couldn’t get worse again. Voltaire’s point was not that optimism about mankind’s fate is false. It was that, in the face of a Heaven known to be decidedly unbenevolent, it takes unrelenting, thankless, and mostly ill-rewarded work to cultivate happiness here on earth, no matter what color the soil. That was the lesson Dr. Pangloss and his students had yet to learn.

Adam Gopnik, "Blood and Soil: A Historian Returns to the Holocaust" - http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/21/blood-and-soil

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